Playground Olympics

Living in Vienna is my first experience of living in any kind of big city.  When we lived in Virginia in the US, we lived in a very busy and crowded suburb, but it wasn’t the same as living in an actual city.  In a lot of ways, I think that particular suburb had a lot of the worst characteristics of city life (traffic, tons of people, noise, expensive housing) with very few of the redeeming qualities (walkability, sense of neighborhood, culture on your doorstep).

I have, however, both where I grew up and then living in Virginia as an adult, been fortunate to live in very culturally diverse places.  Living near Washington, DC does that — with so many people from international diplomatic services, as well as DC being the heart of the American government, there is an environment of cultural and ethnic diversity from around the world and throughout the US itself that’s pretty impressive.  Vienna has much the same situation — home to a main office of the UN, there is, by requirement, a vast international community, and, since we live in the very heart of the city, we get to experience the international feeling of a major city that is then amplified by the UN’s existence here.

As such, my kids are growing up in a very international environment.  Benjamin’s kindergarten class has kids from at least 5 different countries and Liam’s class has at least 6 nations represented — and each class only has 20 kids.

But school isn’t the only place we see this dynamic.  Living in Vienna’s 1st district (the central and oldest part of the city) we encounter this international feeling all the time.  It’s entirely common to take a trip to the playground and meet children from all over the world.  On one particularly frustrating occasion, B tried repeatedly, in increasingly slow and precise German, to ask another child their name and age.  He finally came to me in exasperation, asking why he wasn’t being understood, and after inquiring, it turned out that the child was Russian and spoke no German.  (And since we speak no Russian, they were able to play together, but not talk much.)  Another time, my two boys befriended two boys of similar age, finally settling on French as their most common language (in which Benjamin can only say “Bonjour” and “Je m’appelle Benjamin” … but it worked).

This weekend, I looked around the playground and realized that there were four families and four different languages and nationalities represented — American, Spanish, Russian and Austrian.  This is perfectly normal at our local playground.  We’re almost never the only “imported” family there.  Watching my kids play with and around other children from all over the world makes me appreciate that of all the international cities we could have ended up in, Vienna is one of the best.  My kids are used to hearing other languages all the time, they have the experience of finding a common language and sharing common interests with kids from all over the world.  Plus, it’s so much easier to be “foreign” and “different” when you aren’t the only one.  I love the international feeling in Vienna, and the variety of kids my boys are exposed to.  Every trip to the playground is like our own little kindergarten Olympics.

City mice

When I was little, I spent a few years living in the country.  And for my entire childhood (as best as I remember) I was happy to play in the dirt, walk barefoot in the grass, roll down hillsides, jump in leaf piles and splash in muddy puddles.  I don’t know if those early years living in the country set me on the path of being comfortable with nature, or if that was just always who I was going to be.  Certainly, as the years went on and I became completely enamored of and quite involved in the world of horses, I became even more comfortable with all of the things that outdoor life includes — dirt, bugs, heat, cold, splinters, mosquito bites, an occasional wild animal, and a rare but real need to be capable of some level of first aid and crisis management.

032In my vision of life as a parent, I always imagined my kids would be like me.  Dirt, bugs, weather, outdoors — no problem.

Not so.

Although I’ve done so far (I think) an amazing job of raising kids who are great travelers, have open minds, and who really know how to roll with it when things don’t go according to plan, they are, in different degrees, not so much down with “nature”.  Don’t get me wrong — they like playing outside and generally being outdoors, but only as long as there is not too much dirt, too many animals (wild or domesticated, but dogs are ok) or pretty much any bugs at all.

033I think it’s all the city living.  Sure, we VISIT the countryside — we hike, and play, and stay on working farms — but we come back to our attic apartment in the chic downtown of one of the cleanest, nicest and safest cities I’ve ever seen.  While at home in the US, there would have been trips to the barn to visit the horses, pumpkin patches in the fall and berry picking in the spring, outdoor swimming pools, camping trips and even just visits to Grandpa’s house (which has a yard and a very cool tire swing), here there is none of that.  Pumpkins and Christmas trees have been picked and cut before we buy them, the swimming pools are indoors, horses pull carriages and are not to be touched, and camping is something we do in our living room.

034This most recent trip to Sankt Koloman reminded me of how much my boys are “city mice”.  The farm we stayed on is a working organic farm.  They have cats (including a kitten who was a big hit with the kids), rabbits, chickens (Benjamin collected the eggs for our breakfast one day), goat and cows.  Both boys were intrigued by the animals (watching the cows get milked was the highlight of Benjamin’s trip, and Liam keeps asking where the kitten is) but they were not fond of the mud on their boots nor the inevitable bees and flies that come from being in the country in nice weather.

040I suspect this will change on its own after we go back to the US.  Before we left, our lives in the States included experiencing a lot more of nature, more regularly, than we do now.  I imagine it will again.  I really hope my boys will learn that the bees and bugs and dirt are all a small price to pay for the joy of being outdoors.  Really, I know they will — and I suspect that in a few years, when I’m pulling dead beetles out of the lint filter on the dryer, I’ll laugh at myself for ever thinking that they might not.

In the city

I’ve never lived in a city before:  Tysons Corner was my closest approximation before this (not a bad approximation in terms of the number of people, but a pretty bad approximation in almost every other way).  As such, I sometimes have trouble separating the things I’m enjoying about living in Vienna from the things I’d probably enjoy living in the heart of any city.


I love being in the middle of everything.  It’s incredibly liberating to be able to walk out of my front door and pick up coffee, go to a park, do any kind of shopping, or even get on a bus or train and go anywhere.  It’s also really enriching my experience here to be able to go for a stroll in the afternoon with the boys and easily access many of the culturally and historically significant aspects of Vienna.  We might, just on an afternoon walk, see a massive palace, visit a church older than my country or happen upon an operatic performance (that last one happened just today).  Pretty much anything I could want or need is right at my doorstep.  (We consider it a “long walk” to go get pizza — which takes 12 minutes from our front door.)

029Most of that, though, could be said about many cities in the world (Europe in particular).  In Vienna, I’m enjoying the safety, the richness of the history and the beauty — not only is the architecture like something from a story book, but this city has so much green space.  I’m not sure how much of that I would get anywhere else.

I’m really enjoying time here, but I’m still really a country mouse at heart.  I love Vienna’s architecture, but I long for a view that comes from other than just between two city streets.  I miss the way that grass cleans the dirt from my shoes.  I love the freshness of the smells of grass or hay or woods — wet pavement has a certain pleasantness to it, but it isn’t the same.

I’m really enjoying Vienna, and I think my sanity is preserved, in part, by being right in the heart of everything here.  But really, I’m just visiting.